Self-Help: why the Industry is not a complete fraud

This is a three-blog series on the lessons from the ‘self-help, self-improvement and self-discipline’ industries. This first instalment covers my thoughts on the self-help industry, the negative perceptions around it and why it’s success is built on more than showmanship. (Question: are these blogs too long? Let me know please!)

It’s bigger than you think

The Self-help industry is a large and rapidly growing industry with annual revenue exceeding $10 billion. In the age of social media, there are hundreds of prominent ‘life-gurus’ who advocate their enlightened lifestyle and steps to ‘true happiness’ through blogs, vlogs and Instagram. However, ‘old media’ remains dominant. The New York Times Best-seller list is full of books like ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’, ‘How to win friends and influence people’ and ‘Think and Grow Rich’. Some of the most listened to podcasts and blogs are from people like Tim Ferris and Rich Roll, who have released books like ‘The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich’ and ‘Finding Ultra: Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World’s Fittest Men, and Discovering Myself’. No doubt you know someone who is vouching for how inspirational one blogger is or that this video will change your life (that person might be me!).

The Self-Help Guide to Choosing a Self-Help Guide

The most prominent ‘self-help’ guru is a someone called Tony Robbins.Over the past two decades, he has amassed a wealth of over $500 million in the industry of ‘changing people’s lives’ (his TED talk). He has written over ten books with titles such as ‘Awaken the Giant Within’ and ‘Unlimited Power’. His annual conference ‘A Date with Destiny’ promises that ‘over six days, Tony Robbins will help you help you find the answer to life, providing you tools to reshape your destiny and design the life of your dreams’ – no small feat. The price tag certainly reflects this with tickets starting at $4,500. The ‘self-help’ industry is increasingly commercial and can be far more expensive than ‘seeking-help’!


The Critics

This industry and its leaders have attracted a lot of criticism. Critics argue these ‘self-help gurus’ target the lost, misguided and desperate. Self-help gurus are no more than good-looking, successful and charismatic characters who have learnt a few strong rhetorical lines with which to profiteer from the vulnerable. A prominent critic, Steve Salerno published a book called ‘SHAM’ in which he says that 80 percent of self-help and motivational customers are repeat customers and they keep coming back ‘whether the program worked for them or not. Others argue with self-help books ‘supply increases the demand… The more people read them, the more they think they need them… more like an addiction than an alliance.’ For a very extensive backdrop on the rise of the industry, it can be found here ‘The Science of Self-Help’. Indeed, watching his documentary, ‘I am not your Guru’, I could not help but draw the parallels with ‘faith healers’. His conference was characterised by fervent chanting and wild declarations. It felt exploitative.

The Secret?

However, at the same time, Tony Robbins has personally coached the likes of Bill Clinton, Mikhail Gorbachev and Serena Williams – not weak characters by any means. In addition, thousands have reported his books, videos or conferences have ‘changed their lives’. (The cynic might highlight that after paying $4,500 you may not be very inclined to admit it was a waste!)


So, what is his secret? What can Tony Robbins teach you in a week that could fundamentally change your life? The economist in me also asks, what could he possibly say that others could not repeat and ‘sell on’ for much less?

Watching his documentary, a biased but still interesting watch, some of the answer is ‘pomp and show’. With a host of clever physical and mental tricks, he captured people’s attention, interest and ultimately their faith that he can solve their problems. Some of these tactics involved emphasising his authenticity, reiterating ‘I am not bullshit’ and ‘I don’t care to give you what you want to hear’. At 6’7″, with good looks and physical size – he is also, by definition, looked up to. His supreme confidence and intensity are overwhelming and when given his undivided attention, people melt.


Other tactics create a receptive and positive mood at his conference by getting lots of energy in a room with enforced dancing, shouting lines about how amazing you are and finally Tony’s famous emphatic clap.


The event also benefits from a huge selection bias. At such a high price tag, attendees have already bought into his story and are convinced this conference will, in fact, change their lives. Behavioural economists have highlighted the impact of ‘priming’ and ‘confirmation bias’ in our decision making. This contributes to the success of ‘faith healers’ and ‘self-help’ gurus alike.

The value in ‘self-help’ gurus

Self-help gurus are more than elaborate con artists – I think they do provide some value to people’s lives. Advertising is plastered all around us with role models living a ‘successful’ life with their money and fame (this will feature in a future blog). The culture at university, and particularly my experience at Cambridge, is built towards people climbing up the ladder in banks, law firms and consultancies in ‘The City’. I think the  ‘mid-life’ crises are symptomatic of lives built on external goals – people reach a point in their lives when the choices they have made do not reflect their desires.


I think the success of the self-help industry is indicative of a sad truth: we live in a society which tells us what to live for rather than ask. Little time and space is given to self-reflection and determining what our own goals may be. Asking the hard and painful questions: what really drives us, what we are working towards and what are our core principles. These are often regarded as ‘fluffy’, ‘intangible’ and ‘pointless’ to ask. I think otherwise. These questions have answers, although it may take a while to find them.

A Tentative conclusion

The ‘self-help’ industry brings people to an environment or frame of mind that is conducive to them asking these questions. Tony Robbins does not know the people he helps, but he does that they know themselves and in the right context can start to govern their decisions. At a cost of $4,500, it is an expensive way to ask yourself questions but in a society where this is all too lacking – it may be worth it.

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A hypocrite who enjoys engaging with ideas, challenging my own and exploring new ones.

5 thoughts on “Self-Help: why the Industry is not a complete fraud”

  1. Agree with your closing point – it’s all too easy to get caught up in the race as opposed to working out what your goals are.

    Peter Thiel sums it up well “The big problem with competition is that it focuses us on the people around us, and while we get better at the things we’re competing on, we lose sight of anything that’s important, or transcendent, or truly meaningful in our world.”

    It’s interesting how you mention everyone in Cambridge competes for the big jobs and that self help gurus could bring you to question this. I agree on this, however, often they push you towards alternative paths as opposed to merely making you question what’s most important. Sometimes then profiting off the extra resources you’ll need for these alternative paths!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thats a great quote from Peter Thiel and definitely agree on your last point – its a needlessly commercialised industry where people start to think and are told you need to spend money to ask those questions, as opposed to just asking them!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I think that you’ve articulated well a phenomenon that may seem recent but is in fact timeless. Many decades ago, Dale Carnegie wrote “How To Win Friends and Influence People”. First published in 1936, it remains a cash cow for its publisher because the commercialization of expertise, self-improvement, and ultimately hope is ultimately the monetized version of religion! And, like religion, it contains (I believe) kernels of truth wrapped in ritual and professed knowledge and authority that assuages anxiety and uncertainty – about the present and the future.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks David, I hadn’t thought of the comparisons with religion but you make a great point. Similar to religion (in some cases), this industry also benefits from people who are desperately searching for an answer and with enough confidence and an answer that can never be proven or denied – you will have devoted followers!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post! It’s a wonderful articulation of something the cynic in me has been wondering for a while, I think you are certainly onto something.

    Liked by 1 person

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